Let’s start with a pretty obscure question. In most evangelical churches, the notion of women covering their heads is not on the radar, not even really recognized as being an issue at all. I mean it is 2008 and we aren’t Amish, so why in the world would women in Christian churches cover their heads?
Well, because it is an explicit commandment. See 1 Corinthians 11:
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. (1 Corinthians 11:1-15)
But unlike some commandments, this one gets virtually no attention outside of some smaller denominations that many people would see as being on the fringe (Mennonites, Plymouth Brethren, etc.)
Why is there such opposition to this? It is a clear commandment, it meshes with covenant headship and the order of creation, and it isn’t a huge sacrifice for women to wear a headcovering. Let’s look at some of the objections that may come up…
Maybe the argument is that if we set this as an expectation and godly women in the church model it, it will make people uncomfortable and maybe it will be a stumbling block to unbelievers coming to church. I mean what if people come to church and see women covering their heads demurely, who wants to go there? Plus the women already at the church aren't going to want to wear headcoverings! The last thing we should do is make people get out of their comfort zones, don't you know what that does to attendance numbers and the offering!?
But is that a) true and b) a legitimate concern? The most discomforting place an unbeliever should be is in a Bible preaching church, being confronted with their sinful nature and the exclusive hope of Christ. If the Gospel is being preached from the pulpit, women wearing a head covering should be the LAST thing that sinners are discomforted by!
Well, what about arguing that women covering their heads is a cultural issue of that time and no longer relevant in these modern times? Well liberal theologians have made those arguments about all manner of doctrinal issues that most conservative churches takes as settled matters: homosexuality, marriage, divorce, etc. It is amazing how quickly some rise to the defense of prohibitions on homosexuality or cohabitation when told they are merely cultural constructs of that time, but then assume that something like women covering their heads in church is merely a cultural sign of marriage, like a wedding ring.
Or the most compelling argument, that the headcovering was a sign that a woman was married and under the headship of her husband, a symbol which is fulfilled now with a wedding ring?But there is a huge difference between an extra-Biblical tradition like the exchanging and wearing of wedding bands and the covering of a woman's head. The context is not cultural, it is covenantal.
Even after the great battle in the past decades over the inerrancy of the Bible, a battle won in the Southern Baptist Convention and clearly abandoned in more liberal, “mainline” Protestant denominations. I would suspect, and I have tested this theory, that when shown 1 Corinthians 11, many Christians shrug their shoulders, agree that it is a command but then still feel free to ignore it.
What is the point of this? To keep women in their place? Not at all. Women quite simply should wear head coverings in church because it is a commandment and it has a real theological symbolism and purpose. The greater issue and the real reason for this post is that we don’t see women wearing head coverings in church, among other issues, for two reasons: 1) It is never brought up and 2) we have capitulated to the culture.
It is never brought up because we flat out ignore a lot of Scripture because it is easier to skip over the problematic verses. You can’t do that if you preach chapter by chapter, verse by verse through a book. Anyone can preach about David, or John 3:16 or any number of other, straightforward verses. It is harder to preach about God commanding the utter destruction of a pagan people or reading about Lot getting drunk and impregnating his daughters.
We have also capitulated to the culture, to some extent in most churches and almost completely in many others. Not just in the obvious ways like we see in “seeker-sensitive” churches that everyone is always railing against. We have already capitulated to fashion and feminism. We have capitulated to fashion in that women just don’t want to wear what is proper or modest, they want to adorn themselves with what is cute and fashionable. So what if it causes brothers to stumble, makes a mockery of worship and declares God’s Word to be irrelevant in our advanced and enlightened culture. We have capitulated to feminism in that women see Biblical submission as a slight against them. Even in good, conservative, Republican voting churches feminism has a subtle influence over the women of the church. But that is not where it ends, or even the real problem. Much of what we do in a given week is driven by the pressure of tradition. Is VBS really an effective evangelism tool? Probably not, but you better still do it because we have had VBS at this church for fifty years! It is a tradition and by golly we are doing VBS until we run out of cute themes to use!
The real issue is not headcoverings, it is rebelliousness and bowing to Protestant traditions, traditions that have much of the same hold on the Christian church as they do on Papist churches. We have gone so long shuffling along doing the same thing, the same way, it becomes almost impossible to imagine that we need to do something different, especially when it is radically different. We have established some things as tradition for so long that it becomes unthinkable to do things differently and some things despite their explicit commands are ignored for the sake of expediency and a surrender to the culture. As long as we keep doing this, clinging to tradition and ignoring commandment, the local, visible church is doomed to keep muddling along looking less and less like the Bride of Christ and more and more like just another social organization. I am a member of the Rotary Club but I don't expect to find Christ there, because the church and social organizations are not the same thing. Being salt and light, becoming all things to all people is not a white flag of unconditional surrender to the winds of whim and change. If we are going to claim to be a Bible believing people, we had better start checking everything we do against the Word, and if something is contrary to the Word we need to stop and is something is in the Word and we aren't doing it, we better start.